Americans’ anxiety over the ability of representatives in Washington to prevent the nation from falling off the fiscal cliff is yet another reminder of the failure of leadership in the nation’s capital. Fears of rising taxes, indiscriminate, across-the-board spending cuts, a second recession and general fiscal calamity echo across our land. It’s possible that Congress will depart Washington for the holidays without achieving a workable, common-sense solution to the financial problems that have engulfed our country. Is there a way to protect the citizenry from such irresponsibility?
The remedy is found in Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, which provides that the president “may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them.” If there is no deal by the time of the holiday recess, and lawmakers are packing their bags for a vacation while America is staring into the abyss, President Obama should exercise leadership and take two key steps. First, he must channel the determination, passion and inspirational qualities of Franklin Roosevelt and deliver a prime-time, nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress reminding members of the grave consequences associated with cliff-diving. Second, he must invoke his constitutional authority to “convene” Congress and declare to legislators that they will remain in Washington until a deal has been negotiated.
This strong tactic would be a new and welcome exercise in executive leadership by President Obama. He would forgo his own vacation in Hawaii and doubtless anger some members of Congress, but the portrait of the nation’s legislators leaving behind critical, unfinished business would be worse. It would be admired, moreover, by voters who rightly expect Congress and the president to meet their responsibilities.
American history provides plenty of precedents to justify Obama’s resort to the convocation power. Across the decades, presidents have convened Congress on more than two dozen occasions, typically to address matters of war and national security or a variety of economic and domestic challenges. George Washington convened the Senate in 1794 to deliberate on Jay’s Treaty. John Adams called Congress into session in 1797 to consider deteriorating relations with France. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison found reasons to convene Congress, as did Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman, among others.
President Lincoln’s decision to call Congress into session on July 4, 1861, to explain his actions and policies in response to the outbreak of the Civil War represented perhaps the most dramatic use of the convocation power. Truman convened Congress in 1948 to press the “do-nothing Republicans” to enact civil rights and social legislation.
The risks associated with the fiscal cliff are too grave to ignore. Americans long for the exercise of presidential stewardship that will ensure an anxious nation its representatives will stay on the job until the work is done.
Adler is the director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University, where he serves as the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the presidency.